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Newsline - March 4, 2005

In response to a request from Interfax, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement expressing "bewilderment" at a request earlier this week by Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili that the EU consider deploying observers to Georgia's borders with Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Daghestan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 March 2005). The Russian statement points out that previous monitoring of the border by the OSCE was suspended because it proved ineffective. The statement further characterizes Zourabichvili's request as an attempt to drive a wedge between Russia and the EU, "with which Moscow is linked by close ties of partnership." Caucasus Press on 3 March quoted a press release from the office of EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana as saying that the EU is holding consultations with all sides in order to best resolve the problem of security on the Georgian-Russian border after the termination of the OSCE border -operation but has not made its final decision yet. The press release also said the EU supports OSCE plans for additional training for Georgian border guards. LF

Deputy Economic Development and Trade Minister Andrei Sharonov told RIA-Novosti on 3 March that the merger of Gazprom and Rosneft will take place without the inclusion of Yuganskneftegaz. Sharonov confirmed an earlier statement on the merger by Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 March 2005). Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref also confirmed the deal, saying the exact structure of the merger deal has yet to be worked out. Rosneft on 3 March issued a statement saying that Miller's assertion that Yuganskneftegaz will become an independent state company headed by Rosneft President Sergei Bogdanchikov should "be taken as his personal opinion." Gazprom the same day issued a statement saying Miller's statements were "correct." "The Moscow Times" speculated on 4 March that the dueling press releases are an indication of "a rift over the division of spoils at the top of [President Vladimir] Putin's administration that pits Putin's chief of staff and Gazprom board Chairman [Dmitrii] Medvedev against his deputy in the presidential administration, Rosneft board chairman Igor Sechin." National Strategy Council head Stanislav Belkovskii told the daily that "the main rule of Putin's presidency -- don't air your dirty laundry in public -- is being broken." "Putin's machine is collapsing as we speak," he concluded. RC

The Unified Russia faction in the State Duma could lose its constitutional majority if the 20 deputies from the People's Party make good on their 3 March threat to quit the faction to protest the government's social-benefits reforms, reported on 4 March. People's Party leader and State Duma Deputy Gennadii Gudkov (Unified Russia) told journalists that the Unified Russia faction's leadership has repeatedly ignored the party's legislative initiatives, particularly concerning its objections to the benefits reforms. The Unified Russia faction currently has 305 members; 300 are needed to secure the two-thirds majority needed to adopt constitutional laws. Gudkov told the website that more than half of the party's regional branches have already passed resolutions calling for a withdrawal from the Unified Russia faction. Political scientist Aleksei Makarkin told the website that although having a constitutional majority is critically important to the Kremlin, losing the People's Party deputies would not cause a major problem for the party. "The Kremlin can always secure a constitutional majority by relying on the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia [LDPR] faction and some independent deputies," Makarkin said. RC

Political scientist Makarkin told on 4 March that Deputy Gudkov has close ties to the Kremlin and that he is the Kremlin's unofficial Duma spokesman on national security issues. Makarkin speculated that Gudkov's announcement signals that the Kremlin wants to shift his deputies from Unified Russia into a new leftist faction, Patriots of Russia, that is being formed by Deputy Gennadii Semigin (independent) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 February 2005). "Gudkov and the People's Party deputies are simply being shifted from one Kremlin project to another," Makarkin said. "Apparently, a competitor is being created for the president's former 'special forces unit,' Motherland." Makarkin added that he thinks Semigin will be able to put together a faction of about 100 deputies and that the group will serve as the basis for a leftist political party to run in the 2007 Duma elections. RC

Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov on 2 March chaired the first full session of the governmental commission that is drafting the 2006-08 federal budget, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 3 March. The daily noted that this is the first time in five years that Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin has not headed the commission (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 February 2005). The paper also reported that Kudrin and Economic Development Minister Gref are "ordinary members" of the commission, on a par with bureaucrats from the government and the presidential administration. It suggested that Fradkov is likely to be most strongly influenced by deputy government-apparatus head Mikhail Kopeikin and that the budget drafting will not be based on projected revenues, as in the past, but on "the principle of budget expenditure matching the government's and parliament's economic-development objectives." RC

"Kommersant-Daily" reported on 2 March that Fradkov would like to reduce the value-added tax (VAT) from the current 18 percent to 13 percent beginning next year, while Finance Minister Kudrin insists that the government cannot afford to cut any taxes. Economic Development and Trade Minister Gref has also reportedly said that there should be no tax cuts until at least 2008. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 3 March that Fradkov has already told Gref that his ministry's economic plan "does not in full measure meet the requirements that we are formulating for ourselves." Russian Academy of Sciences Vice President Aleksandr Nekipelov told the daily that the policies of Kudrin and Gref are "turning the country into a sort of miserly knight who is engaged in accumulating countless treasures while losing the capacity for modernization." Nekipelov said the liberal ministers believe that market forces should determine the placement of state resources, while President Putin and the government want to take an active role in setting economic and social goals. RC

ORT commentator Mikhail Leontev authored a blistering anti-American critique in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 2 March in which he says "the United States is not our reliable ally in any area in which it declares itself one, and has never been our ally." Leontev says the United States plans to fund "subversive organizations" in Russia because "they dislike the political system existing in Russia." He compares the purported U.S. effort with the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, which was given financial support by Germany. "It is no secret that so-called nongovernmental organizations are now openly financed not only by foundations and suspicious private individuals with very peculiar political views," Leontev says. "They are also directly financed by the U.S. Congress." He adds that the independent media are completely free in Russia and that there is no truth to claims that representatives of the security organs are trying to restore a totalitarian system. RC

REN-TV on 2 March interviewed several members of the new pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi (Ours) in Nizhnii Novgorod, highlighting their sharply anti-American views. "We think that America is Russia's main enemy," student Dmitrii Shvabinskii said. "One must remember that we always have had enemies." "Our idea is to stop Russia from becoming a subsidiary of the United States and a supplier of raw materials," student Dmitrii Lyashchev said. Local Marching Together coordinator Sergei Malinovskii, who is also organizing Nashi, told REN-TV, "Our task is to teach people to be patriots." The REN-TV correspondent commented that Nashi organizers "think that the anti-American struggle can consolidate the nation." RC

Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) Political Council member Boris Nadezhdin told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 2 March that his party has launched a campaign to hold regional referendums on the question of restoring the direct election of regional governors. He said the party believes that such referendums could be held in as many as 50 Russian regions. The party will submit the necessary papers to local election commissions within the next few days, he said, after which the commissions are required by law to respond within 20 days. Central Election Commission (TsIK) Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov has issued orders to the local commissions telling them to quash the applications, Nadezhdin said, adding that positive responses have already been received in Moscow Oblast and Altai Krai. Nadezhdin said that if even a couple of regions adopt binding referendums demanding direct gubernatorial elections, it will provoke a constitutional crisis and "an inevitable need to go to the Constitutional Court." "I am absolutely sure we will ensure the abolition of this law by going down this path," Nadezhdin said. RC

The new system under which regional executive-branch heads are nominated by the president and confirmed by local legislatures has imparted a new urgency to regional legislative-election campaigns, "Novye izvestiya" reported on 4 March. The Motherland party and Unified Russia are campaigning aggressively for the 20 March legislative elections in Voronezh Oblast (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 March 2005). On 27 March, voters in Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug will select a new legislature, which is particularly important because the term of okrug Governor Yurii Neelov expires in April. According to the daily, Unified Russia will likely win a majority in the legislature and support Neelov's reappointment. On 20 March, Vladimir Oblast will elect a new legislature in a race that features a unified list of candidates by Yabloko and the SPS. Five of the 22 Motherland candidates in the elections withdrew without explanation and six others were stricken from the party list by election officials for presenting incorrect biographical information, the daily reported. Local party officials assert that the candidates were intimidated by unnamed local officials. RC

The Russian public is not inclined to any explosive unrest and instead shows "a restrained social optimism," a new national study by the ROMIR monitoring service has found, "Vremya novostei" reported on 4 March. The study involved extensive questioning of 15,200 people in 59 federation subjects representing all seven federal districts. The research was completed in December, before the current wave of unrest over the government's social-benefits reforms. "The main result of the research is to show that all layers of society have accepted democratic values, despite the accepted wisdom that Russia is in principle an undemocratic country," Institute of Social Forecasting Director Valerii Fadeev told the daily. "Russian society by and large is stable, and an absolute majority has adjusted to the new circumstances of life." The study found that most Russians, including the poorest, support the transition to a free-market economy and that "Russia is an open society that does not suffer from xenophobia." Institute of Social Forecasting Deputy Director Mikhail Rogozhnikov said that the results indicate that Russian society is ready to accept a "stable, two-party [political] system." He said the current political system, in which everything is concentrated within the centrist Unified Russia party, "does not reflect the expectations of Russian society." RC

President Putin on 3 March met with Russia's chief rabbi, Berl Lazar, and pledged that "the struggle against anti-Semitism and manifestations of any form of extremism or xenophobia is constantly in the minds of the authorities," "Izvestiya" reported on 4 March. Lazar expressed to Putin his gratitude for the president's statement in January at a commemoration of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp that he is "ashamed" of anti-Semitism in Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 January 2005). Lazar added that he does not think the problem of anti-Semitism in Russia is "particularly severe," although he said there are certain "disturbing signs." He told Putin that "Jews have begun returning [to Russia], and that is a good sign for us." RC

A conference in Grozny of womens' groups organized by the pro-Moscow Chechen leadership adopted a resolution on 3 March stating that Russian and international organizations should stop calling for talks with what they termed "illegal armed groups," meaning the Chechen resistance forces commanded by President Alsan Maskhadov, Interfax reported. Addressing the Grozny conference, pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov denounced as "pointless" the talks held in London on 24-25 February between representatives of the Union of Committee of Soldiers' Mothers and Maskhadov's envoy, Akhmed Zakaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 February 2005). Alkhanov said Maskhadov, Zakaev and radical field commander Shamil Basaev are to blame for the continuing deaths of Russian servicemen in Chechnya. Meanwhile, Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya wrote in the 28 February-2 March issue of "Novaya gazeta" that the Russian mothers' delegation in London insisted on changes to the draft memorandum proposed by the Chechen side, including referring to the ongoing conflict not as a Russian-Chechen war but as an "internal armed conflict" in accordance with Moscow's preferred terminology. LF

The European Commission's representative in Yerevan, Jacques Vantomme, outlined to journalists on 3 March the gist of the EU's 30-page draft country report for Armenia, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The document is intended to serve as the basis for an action plan to expand relations between Armenia and the EU. The action plan entails promoting democratic elections, the rule of law, respect for human rights, anticorruption measures, further economic reform, and the closure of the Medzamor nuclear power plant. The Armenian authorities are reluctant to shut down Medzamor, which provides 40 percent of the country's energy, until alternative generating facilities have been built. LF

The Baku offices of the EU and the OSCE, and the U.S. and Norwegian embassies, issued statements on 3 March condemning the killing the previous evening of Elmar Huseinov, editor of the opposition weekly "Monitor," Turan reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 March 2005). Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Reporters Without Borders expressed shock and outrage at what HRW said "looks like an organized murder aimed at silencing" criticism by "Monitor" of top-level corruption. At the request of the Azerbaijani government, a representative of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation is scheduled to arrive in Baku on 4 March to help Azerbaijani police investigate the killing. LF

Members of the Azerbaijani intelligentsia, human rights activists, and leaders of political parties congregated in Baku on 3 March to evaluate the implications of Huseinov's killing, Turan reported. Opposition party leaders Isa Qambar (Musavat), Ali Kerimli (Azerbaijan Popular Front Party progressive wing), Lala-Shovket Gadjieva (National Unity Liberation Movement), and Iskander Hamidov (National Democratic Party) termed it a "political killing" and "an act of state terror," and argued that President Ilham Aliyev should resign if the killers are not found, Turan reported. Kerimli advocated mass demonstrations on 4 March to coincide with Huseinov's funeral, calling on "all who are concerned by the fate of Elmar Huseinov to come together...and express our hatred of the current regime," AFP reported. But the Azerbaijani Prosecutor-General's Office and the Interior and National Security ministries issued a joint statement on 3 March warning against any attempts to use the murder for political purposes, including to exacerbate political tensions, reported on 4 March. LF

President Aliyev issued a decree on 3 March expressing "horror" over the conditions in Azerbaijan's prisons and firing three prison directors, Turan and reported on 4 March. One of those replaced was the director of prison No. 11, where police and security forces were deployed two weeks ago to suppress a riot by inmates (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 February 2005). LF

Members of the Adjar republican legislature who represent the ruling National Movement have issued an ultimatum to the head of the region's government, Levan Varshalomidze, to dismiss within two to three weeks all government personnel related to or who have close ties to the region's former leader, Aslan Abashidze, who now lives in exile in Moscow, Georgian media reported on 3 March. Parliamentary deputy Eka Kherkheulidze told journalists she has given Varshalomidze a list of the officials in question but will not publicize their names if he dismisses them within the specified time frame. LF

Fourteen employees of Adjar republican television have resigned over the past two days to protest what they perceive as censorship and pressure from the channel's management, Georgian media reported on 3 and 4 March. Information Department head Nata Imedaishvili resigned on 3 March, saying she was forced to do so by company President Zaza Khalvashi after her husband quit the ruling National Movement, Caucasus Press reported. Three of Imedaishvili's fellow journalists also resigned on 3 March in a gesture of solidarity, and 10 more journalists and technicians did so on 4 March. Adjar leader Varshalomidze declined on 3 March to meet with Imedaishvili and her colleagues, saying he was in a meeting with foreign businessmen. LF

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev and Uzbek President Islam Karimov agreed in a telephone conversation on 3 March to establish a working group to lay the groundwork for a free-trade zone, Khabar and UzA official news agencies reported. In line with Nazarbaev's recently stated intention to create a union of Central Asian states (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 February 2005), the two presidents decided that deputy prime ministers from the two countries will begin drafting an agreement to establish a free-trade zone, Khabar reported. A working group led by the two deputy prime ministers will examine ways to harmonize economic and financial legislation in order to boost trade ties, UzA reported. The two presidents also agreed on the need for joint efforts to combat extremism and terror, as well as the need for consultation in resolving the region's water-use difficulties. DK

In an appeal published in "Navigator" on 3 March, the Almaty council of the Ak Zhol party called on the opposition party's five chairpersons to attend a meeting in Almaty in early March to resolve a split in the party. Chairmen Bulat Abilov, Oraz Zhandosov, and Altynbek Sarsenbaev have been involved in a dispute with chairpersons Alikhan Baimenov and Liudmila Zhulanova in recent weeks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 and 23 February 2005). Also on 3 March, "Navigator" published an appeal from Abilov, Zhandosov, and Sarsenbaev asking for a new meeting of party leaders to annul the results of a disputed 13 February meeting. Finally, "Navigator" published an open letter on 3 March from opposition figure Zamanbek Nurkadilov in which he apologized for disparaging comments he made about Ak Zhol cochairman Altynbek Sarsenbaev at a news conference in late February. DK

An explosion occurred at the Bishkek apartment of Roza Otunbaeva, co-chairwoman of the opposition Ata-Jurt bloc, in the early morning of 3 March, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. According to Otunbaeva, the blast knocked out windows and damaged the building. It took place on the balcony and caused no injuries, however. Police later found shrapnel at the scene and suggested that the cause of the explosion was a hand grenade, reported. The Interior Ministry and National Security Service are investigating the incident, Kabar news agency reported. Otunbaeva called the blast a scare tactic. The first round of parliamentary elections took place on 27 February and runoffs are scheduled for 13 March. "This bears the imprint, the attitude, of the Kyrgyz government toward the opposition," Otunbaeva said, according to RFE/RL. "Not only the press, but democracy itself is in danger in this country. But we will not give [democracy] up." DK

Abdil Segizbaev, spokesman for Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, told RFE/RL on 3 March that Otunbaeva's comments "mean nothing." "This is [just] a provocation [by her]," he said. "She just wants to make a name for herself, instigating scandals or conflicts." Segizbaev spoke out in a similar vein at a news conference the same day, Kyrgyz Television 1 reported. "You understand quite well that the public has lost interest in [the opposition] and that they are capable of many things, including masterminding such incidents which happen on their order to revive interest," Segizbaev said. "I think they must be very ignorant residents if they do not know what is there on their balcony." Segizbaev said police are investigating the incident and pledged that "those who masterminded the provocation will be found." DK

Vladimir Sotirov, head of the UN Tajikistan Office of Peace-Building, told Avesta in an interview on 3 March that he is concerned about the tensions that the 27 February parliamentary elections have caused between the government and the opposition. Sotirov noted as a worrisome development the possibility that four opposition parties -- the Communist Party, Islamic Renaissance Party, Democratic Party, and Social Democratic Party -- might withdraw from the Public Council to protest alleged election fraud. "Ceasing dialogue at the level of the Public Council in itself is a dangerous step that threatens the efforts being made by the nation and political parties in the country's post-conflict development," Sotirov said. In comments reported on 3 March by RFE/RL's Tajik Service, Sotirov added, "We hope that the situation after the elections will not have a negative impact on peace and stability in the country, and that despite all the difficulties, democratic processes, including the rule of law and protection of human rights, will continue to develop in the future." DK

President Imomali Rakhmonov issued a decree on 3 March setting 17 March as the date for the first session of Tajikistan's newly elected lower chamber of parliament, Tajik Television First Channel reported. DK

Some 800 small retail traders on 3 March blocked traffic on the main thoroughfare in Hrodna, western Belarus, during the third consecutive day of protests against the introduction of an 18 percent value-added tax (VAT) on Russian imports (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 and 3 March 2005), RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Belapan reported. Police broke up the rally in Hrodna after vendors moved to the regional administration building. Police reportedly arrested four people, including journalist Andrey Pachobut, who was covering the rally for the Internet news site Most vendors at non-food markets in Minsk reportedly continued their protest on 3 March, while those in Homel have stopped protesting against the VAT on Russian imports. JM

A district court in Minsk in February sentenced Uladzimir Isachenka to 15 years in prison, finding him guilty of running a sex-trade ring and receiving $79,000 for luring 168 Belarusian women into sex slavery in foreign countries, Belapan reported on 3 March, citing the Prosecutor-General's Office. Additionally, the court sentenced to eight years in prison each Isachenka's wife for helping her husband and a former official of the Culture Ministry for forging documents to obtain Italian visas for recruited women. The court also ordered the confiscation of property belonging to the three convicts. JM

Former Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko was found dead at his dacha in Koncha-Zaspa outside Kyiv on 4 March, Ukrainian media reported. Interior Ministry spokeswoman Inna Kysil told journalists that Kravchenko's death appears to be suicide. Kravchenko was scheduled to appear on 4 March before the Prosecutor-General's Office for questioning in connection with the abduction and killing of Internet journalist Heorhiy Gongadze in 2000. According to the Kyiv-based "Segodnya" newspaper, Kravchenko was put under official surveillance in December. The secret recordings made by former presidential bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko in former President Leonid Kuchma's office suggest that Kravchenko and Kuchma may have had a role in the death of Gongadze (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 4 March 2005). President Viktor Yushchenko requested that Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun and Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko personally oversee a probe into Kravchenko's death. JM

Lawmaker Hryhoriy Omelchenko on 3 March called on Prosecutor-General Piskun to immediately issue arrest warrants for former President Kuchma and former Interior Minister Kravchenko in connection with their alleged role in the abduction and killing of Gongadze, Interfax reported. Omelchenko said keeping Kravchenko in custody would be tantamount to "keeping Kravchenko alive." "[Kravchenko's] life is seriously threatened by the danger of a psychological, mental breakdown and suicide, or of physical liquidation, or they'll make it look as though he committed suicide, or he'll simply disappear without a trace," Omelchenko added. Lawmaker Andriy Shkil commented on 4 March that Kravchenko's death appears to be "very strange." "Naturally, his testimony could influence the lot of the former president [Kuchma]," Shkil said. "[Kravchenko] was the crown witness [in the Gongadze case], he should have been put under protection." JM

Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz told journalists on 3 March that he recently met in Vienna with former presidential bodyguard Melnychenko, Interfax reported. Moroz said Melnychenko, who was given refugee status in the United States, could return to Ukraine if he was given the status of a parliamentarian and enjoyed immunity from prosecution. Melnychenko was a candidate on the Socialist Party's list in the 2002 parliamentary elections. Since some Socialist Party lawmakers have recently moved to work in the government of President Yushchenko and renounced their parliamentary seats, Melnychenko apparently expects to obtain a parliamentary mandate under the procedure used for filling in vacant seats contested under the party-list system. Prosecutor-General Piskun said on 2 March he has closed a criminal case against Melnychenko for illegal eavesdropping on former President Kuchma and invited Melnychenko to come to Ukraine with his recordings for their examination and potential inclusion as evidence in the Gongadze case. JM

Germany will deploy an additional 600 troops to reinforce its 2,700-strong KFOR-contingent in Kosova, Vienna's "Der Standard" reported on 3 March. According to a German Defense Ministry spokesman, the deployment is part of a routine exercise to reinforce the KFOR troops' operational capabilities and has nothing to do with reports of growing tensions in Kosova. There is media speculation that the Hague-based international war crimes tribunal might soon indict Kosovar Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj for war crimes committed during the 1999 Kosova conflict. Such reports have repeatedly been denied by both Haradinaj and the head of the UN civilian administration in Kosova, Soren Jessen-Petersen (see "RFE/RL Newsline, 1 December 2004 and 16 February 2005). There is also speculation that the troop reinforcement comes ahead of the anniversary of the riots in March 2004, during which some 20 people were killed (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 and 26 March 2004). UB

Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic met with EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana on 3 March in Brussels to discuss the efforts of Serbia and Montenegro to reach a Stability and Association Agreement with the EU, as well as the future of the state union, Tanjug and MINA news agency reported. A feasibility study on Serbia and Montenegro's readiness for such an agreement is expected to be finalized by the end of March. "What is needed now is decisive action in the areas of economic and political reforms, the rule of law, and institutional capacity building," Solana's spokeswoman Cristina Gallach said. "Both Serbia and Montenegro have still a lot to do in this area." In response to Montenegro's plan to transform Serbia and Montenegro into a union of two independent states, Solana underscored that "the road towards Europe will be better and faster together rather than separate," according to a press release by Solana's office (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February and 1 March 2005 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 11 February 2005). Djukanovic also met with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. UB

Former Bosnian Army General Rasim Delic pleaded not guilty during his first hearing before the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague on 3 March, Reuters reported. Prosecutors accuse Delic of not having prevented or punished war crimes committed by foreign fighters under his command, including the killing of 24 Bosnian Croats in June 1993 and the killing of Bosnian Serb soldiers in the Kamenica prison camp (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 and 24 February and 1 March 2005). UB

Jerzy Smorawinski, who heads the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe's (PACE) rapporteur mission to Albania, said on 2 March that he is concerned over the politicization of the electoral process ahead of the summer parliamentary elections, the "Southeast European Times" reported. Smorawinski added that the rapporteurs are worried about the technical implementation of recent changes to Albania's Electoral Code (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 February and 2 March 2005). UB

Romanian President Traian Basescu said in an interview with "Le Monde" of 3 March that Romania intends to consolidate its relations with Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia. "Good relations between these countries and a NATO and EU member state means a plus in security for the Euro-Atlantic system as a whole," Basescu said. He underscored that good relations with Russia, too, will also contribute to more stability not only for Romania, but also for the organizations Romania is a member of. Basescu said at present there are several frozen conflicts in the Black Sea region such as in Transdniester, South Ossetia, and Nagorno Karabakh. "Sooner or later, these conflicts must be resolved diplomatically, backed, if necessary by intervention," Basescu said. "We must not deceive ourselves and think that [those conflicts] remain frozen indefinitely, because they can break out at any moment. It would be better to prevent this process and avoid surprises." UB

Commenting on the question of whether Romania's good relations with the United States and Great Britain could strain its relations with the EU, Basescu said Romania will remain a partner of the coalition forces in Iraq, adding that he will not cultivate any ambiguity on the subject. "The politicians who want to put Romania in either one camp or the other are wrong," Basescu said. "Romania is first of all a country that has national interests, and our primary interest at the moment is to consolidate our position in the Black Sea region. The same national interest obliges us to have very good relations with France and Germany in the process of European integration." UB

Some 2.3 million voters will go to the polls in Moldova on 6 March to elect a new parliament, Interlic reported. Thirty-six district election commissions will oversee the poll in 1,938 polling stations. Voters can chose among 23 competitors -- nine political parties, three electoral blocs, and 12 independent candidates. Citizens from the separatist region of Transdniester will be able to cast their ballots in special polling stations in the security zone. About 30,000 Moldovan citizens living abroad have expressed interest in voting in the country's embassies. The elections will be monitored by some 2,500 domestic and about 750 international election observers. Also, for the first time the elections will be accompanied by exit polls, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 March 2005). The polls will be carried out in 220 polling stations among some 10,000 voters by three polling agencies commissioned by the Chisinau-based Public Policy Institute. UB

Commenting on the visit of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to Moldova on 3 March, opposition Democratic Moldova Bloc (BMD) Chairman and Chisinau Mayor Serafim Urecheanu criticized Saakashvili for not having the courtesy to meet with him, the BBC's Romanian Service reported the same day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 March 2005). "Whether he wanted to or not, Saakashvili was used by the Communists for their election propaganda," Urecheanu said. Opposition Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD) Deputy Chairman Vlad Cubreacov said Saakashvili's visit was of much greater importance than Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin's visit to Ukraine on 2 March. During his visit, Saakashvili met with PPCD Chairman Iurie Rosca. Cubreacov added that Saakashvili's visit should not be seen in the context of the 6 March parliamentary elections. Instead, the visit was important in that it opened the extraordinary perspectives to resolve a broad range of problems confronting Moldova. Saakashvili and Voronin, among others, signed a joint declaration against separatism. UB

The removal from power of governing elites in Ukraine through peaceful, opposition-led mass protests represents a remarkable political change worthy of being labeled a revolution, and also serves to exemplify that the conditions that led to a successful Orange Revolution are lacking in Moldova on the eve of its 6 March parliamentary elections.

A key distinction of the Orange Revolution was popular dissatisfaction with the corrupt regime of President Leonid Kuchma, who lost control over the election process and, therefore, could remain in power only by rigging its results (as was the case with Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia and Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia). There was a united opposition with a strong leader, Viktor Yushchenko, capable of and willing to capitalize on popular discontent.

Also, outside involvement in Ukraine was significant, with the West firmly siding with the opposition, while Russia openly endorsed the regime's candidate, Viktor Yanukovych. Prior to the second round of elections, Ukraine had already met the Leninist criteria for a successful revolution; i.e., the inability of the country's rulers to govern and the unwillingness of the majority of the population to accept their rule.

In Moldova, members of the governing Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) headed by President Vladimir Voronin have worked hard to distinguish themselves from Kuchma-like regimes or previous Moldovan governments. The PCM has improved tax collection to allow higher spending on social programs, which made the party relatively popular. The party's practice of regularly hiking social payments contrasts sharply with Yanukovych's doubling of social benefits prior to the Ukrainian election in a desperate move to win over welfare recipients. Also, Voronin has begun implementing a program to compensate citizens for losses they incurred when their Soviet-era savings were devalued as a result of hyperinflation in 1992 -- a measure only recently heralded as a priority in Ukraine since Yushchenko became president.

The PCM's successful social policy boosts the Communists reelection chances as much as the presence of a fragmented and weak opposition. Defying common sense, Moldovan opposition parties failed to consolidate their ranks to mount a serious challenge to the Communists' grip on power. The opposition's biggest accomplishment, Chisinau Mayor Serafim Urecheanu's formation of the Democratic Moldova Bloc (BMD), resulted in a fractious coalition that still lacks a political identity. The opposition did close ranks in November 2003 to prevent Voronin's endorsement of Russia's proposal for a resolution to the Transdniester conflict. Yet that solidarity soon dissipated when old animosities among party leaders resurfaced and debates on the principles of consolidation overshadowed the need for a single anti-Communist front. Besides, no opposition leader, be it BMD leader Urechean, Christian Democrat Iurie Rosca, or Social Democrat Ion Musuc, can match the authority and charisma of Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, or Yushchenko.

Moldova's 6 percent threshold for parliamentary representation (the second highest in Europe after Turkey's 10 percent hurdle) favors big parties and electoral alliances, for which the bar is just 9 percent for blocs comprising two parties and 12 percent for those numbering three or more parties. Out of 23 contestants, only four have realistic chances of clearing the hurdle: the PCM, the BMD, the Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD), and the Social Democratic Party (PSDM). The winners, as in the 2001 elections, will take all the votes of the losing parties. Small parties only enhance the Communists' electoral success.

Unlike Kuchma, Voronin surpassed the opposition in promoting Moldova's EU integration project. Moldova signed an Action Plan with Brussels in November 2004 and pressed for more active EU involvement in resolving the Transdniester conflict. In response, the EU decided to send a representative on the Transdniester issue to Chisinau, with a permanent mission to be opened later this year.

In fact, there is not much of a difference between the Communists' electoral message and that of their main rivals, the BMD, PPCD, and PSDM. They all stress social welfare, European integration, and uprooting corruption. But while the Communists top the preferences of the leftist electorate, they effectively challenge the center-right segment usually considered to be the territory of the opposition.

After the Kremlin's humiliating fiasco in Ukraine, any affiliation with Russia will likely be counterproductive for the favorites in the electoral race. All of them favor pragmatic bilateral relations with Russia and call for Moldova's retreat from CIS structures. The only contestants that enjoy Russia's backing, the Patria-Rodina bloc and the social movement Ravnopravie, are organizationally weak and have little chance of passing the 6 percent hurdle.

Voronin was unambiguously pro-Russia at the start of his mandate because he believed the Kremlin could help him restore Moldova's territorial integrity. Numerous concessions made to Russia (i.e. special status for the Russian language, preferential conditions for Russian investments, regular payments for Russian gas imports, etc.) were not sufficient for the Kremlin to withdraw its support for Transdniestrian leader Igor Smirnov. It was logical for Voronin to reject the Kozak memorandum, which granted the separatist region disproportionate powers relative to its size and provided for the continued deployment of Russian troops. Russia's inflexibility made the Communists' swing to the West unavoidable.

Also, there are no indications of the United States taking a strong stance on the side of the opposition, as it did in Ukraine. The United States appears to be content with the Communists' anti-Russia stance (as far as the Kremlin's Transdniester position is concerned) and the European aspirations of the Moldovan government.

Obviously, the Ukrainian events put enormous pressure on Moldova's communist elite to respect the rules of the democratic game. And again, they seized the initiative by inviting a number of high-ranking European and U.S. observers to ensure free and transparent elections. Extensive international monitoring will also be in place to help avert electoral fraud. There is a high chance that the results of the elections will be decided at the polling stations, and not in the streets of Chisinau.

Theoretically, however, one can leave open the possibility that an "orange" scenario will eventually develop, but with a specific Moldovan twist. If the Communists fail to muster the 61 seats needed to choose the president, the opposition could secure early parliamentary elections by blocking all three attempts to do so. It could then capitalize on the momentum and defeat the Communists at the ballot box. Yet this scenario is highly improbable, because it is contingent on the ability and willingness of the opposition to stand together, which is less likely under conditions of secret voting.

In summary, the PCM is the party that has best learned the values of personal campaigning, and benefits from the most extensive network of local party organizations to mobilize the electorate. It has succeeded in attracting young and highly educated technocrats, like Foreign Minister Andrei Stratan, to coordinate Moldova's EU-integration project. Enjoying the twin advantages of strong popular support and a fragmented opposition, the incumbent party can with confidence renounce fraudulent intentions. Under these circumstances, a Moldovan revolution, if it materialized, would lack the legitimacy of the revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, or Serbia.

Ilian Cashu is a Ph.D. student in political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University specializing in postcommunist social policy.

Information and Culture Minister Sayyed Makhdum Rahin in an interview with the official Bakhtar News Agency on 2 March urged those who control audiovisual media in the country to ensure that their programs respect the principles of Islam as well as national and cultural values of the Afghan people, Afghanistan Television reported. "We are a nation with very old historic and cultural roots...and should not let imported phenomena harm" these roots, Rahin said. According to Rahin, while Afghans should take "advantage of the privileges of contemporary civilization," the youth in the country should also be "brought up and educated on the basis of our Islamic and national values." Rahin reminded audiovisual media outlets in Afghanistan of their responsibility in educating the next generation of Afghans and their need to be aware of the psychological conditions of this generation's childhood, which was during years of war and violence. AT

Habibullah Fawzi, one of four former members of the Taliban regime who have been negotiating with the Afghan government, told RFE/RL's Afghan Service on 3 March that he favors an intra-Afghan understanding. Fawzi restated the position of Abdul Hamid Mujahed, the Taliban regime's unofficial representative to the United Nations, that the four do not represent the Taliban movement but Khaddam Al-Furqan (Servants of the Koran) that, according to Fawzi, was established in 1967 (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 25 February 2005). Regarding his views on women's rights, Fawzi said that whatever rights Islam has afforded to women should be implemented, citing women's right to education. AT

The new governor of central Bamiyan Province, Habiba Sorabi, said on 3 March in Kabul that she is fully ready to face the challenges of the post, Xinhua news agency reported. President Hamid Karzai appointed Sorabi on 2 March as the first-ever female governor in Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 March 2005). "It's the best chance for me as a lady who can try her talent, her power to serve the people. This is a good chance for an Afghan lady to implement the law," Sorabi told Xinhua. Regarding women's rights in Afghanistan, Sorabi said that while her appointment does not mean that there are not still problems, she is optimistic Afghan women can solve their problems. According to Sorabi, her immediate priorities in Bamiyan will be "to promote the rule of law" and fight the transit of narcotics and the theft for export of Bamiyan's historical artifacts. She also discussed a master plan for the city of Bamiyan involving road reconstruction and bringing electricity to the city. Sorabi described the condition of women in Bamiyan as "terrible" and something that will be included in her list of top priorities. AT

Abdul Moqtader Frozanfar, the Afghan consul general in Karachi, Pakistan, said on 2 March that none of Al-Qaeda's leaders are in his country, Lahore-based daily "Daily Times," reported on 3 March. "We are sure that none of them [Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, or former Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar] is present on our soil," Frozanfar said, but he conceded that "nobody knows their whereabouts." Frozanfar said the Afghan government is "in touch with the moderate Taliban" to try to convince them to play a role in the rebuilding of Afghanistan. AT

An anonymous "Western diplomat close to the [International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)]" said on 3 March that "Iran has laid the foundations for the research reactor at Arak," Reuters reported. The heavy-water reactor could produce enough plutonium to make one bomb a year. Iran also has asked to break the IAEA seals on some nuclear equipment. An anonymous "diplomat close to the EU-Iran talks" said, "Iran wants to expand quality-control checks and maintenance of 'nonessential' enrichment centrifuge parts to 'essential' centrifuge parts that have been sealed by the IAEA under the suspension." BS

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on 3 March in Washington that Iran-EU discussions are going well, Reuters reported. She said, "We believe that the EU negotiations are leading in the right direction because what they are doing is they are confronting Iran with a choice about whether it is prepared to give the international community the kind of confidence it needs about Iranian activities." There is speculation that Washington will back European offers of incentives to Iran for forsaking its nuclear ambitions. This could include support for Iran World Trade Organization membership and tolerance of European airplane-part sales to Iran. Rice said Iran seems unenthusiastic so far. In a 2 March interview with NBC News in London, Rice said there is no timetable. "The most important thing is that the Iranians need time to understand that they are the ones that need to perform," she said. The United States and EU should have a common strategy, she added, "so that Iran knows there is no other way." BS

U.S. Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva Jackie Wolcott Sanders, who is the special representative of the president for the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, accused Iran of hiding its nuclear activities in a statement to the board of governors of the IAEA in Vienna on 2 March, according to the U.S. State Department's website ( "Given Iran's history of clandestine nuclear activities and its documented efforts to deceive the IAEA and the international community, only the full cessation and dismantling of Iran's nuclear-fissile-material production can begin to give us any confidence that Iran is no longer pursuing nuclear weapons," she said. Sanders referred to the previous day's report by IAEA Deputy Director-General Pierre Goldschmidt, which she described as a "startling list of Iranian attempts to hide and mislead, and delay the work of IAEA inspectors." After going through a list of Iranian misdeeds, Sanders said, "there remain an alarming number of unresolved questions about Iran's nuclear program.... The IAEA is still not able to provide assurances that Iran is not pursuing clandestine activities at undeclared locations -- as it had been doing for years." BS

Brigadier General Mehdi Aboui, who heads the national police counternarcotics unit, announced on 2 March that during the previous 11 months more than 250 tons of drugs were seized, state radio reported. This is a record amount, he said. In the eastern part of the country during the same time, armed clashes with gangs of smugglers resulted in 267 smugglers dead and 1,310 captured, while 39 security officers lost their lives. 111,300 smugglers were captured throughout the country, and 263,000 addicts were arrested. The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), an independent agency that monitors the UN's drug conventions, issued its annual survey on 2 March (, reporting that Iran and Pakistan are the main transit countries for drugs originating in Afghanistan, despite Iranian government efforts. Traffickers use the Afghanistan-Iran-Pakistan border area more than before, the report notes. Demand-reduction activities increasingly accompany law enforcement activities, and counternarcotics legislation has been revised. The INCB called for more demand-reduction activities, more cooperation with nongovernmental organizations, and greater attention to countering money laundering. The INCB report notes Iran's role in cooperative regional counternarcotics efforts. On 1 March, two Kuwaiti security officials arrived in Tehran to participate in bilateral meetings on counternarcotics and Interpol, KUNA reported. BS

Speaker of parliament Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel discussed the planned Iran-Pakistan-India natural-gas pipeline during a 3 March visit to Bangalore, IRNA reported. Construction of the pipeline has been delayed by Indian-Pakistani tensions and resulting security concerns. Haddad-Adel addressed Indian security concerns and desire for insurance guarantees, saying, "Fortunately, some solutions for the guarantee have been found and some suggestions have been made in this respect," IRNA reported. He added, "The suggestion generally is that Iran undertakes to bring the gas to India's boundaries and then it seems on the basis of this suggestion, there will be no problem." The same day, he said at the Iran Culture House in New Delhi that the United States is threatening Islamic unity, and he encouraged unity among Muslims, IRNA reported. Haddad-Adel and a delegation of other legislators arrived in India on 28 February. BS

The parliamentary session scheduled for the afternoon of 3 March did not take place because there were not enough legislators present to form a quorum, ILNA reported. Deputy parliamentary speaker Mohammad Reza Bahonar said the names of absent legislators will be read on radio and television. He added that all parliamentarians must be present on 5 March. BS

Press Court prosecutor Said Mortazavi on 2 March asked Tehran Justice Department chief Abbas Alizadeh to clarify his earlier statements on press regulations, ILNA reported on 2 March and IRNA reported on 3 March. Alizadeh on 28 February described new legal guidelines on press violations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 March 2005). Apparently, the Tehran media interpreted Alizadeh's statement to mean that press restrictions have been loosened. Mortazavi wrote in a letter to Alizadeh that the clarification is necessary because newspapers and news agencies have interpreted his comments in a number of ways. Mortazavi wrote that limits on the press are specified in the constitution and the Civil Code, IRNA reported. Everything the Justice Department has done, he said, is in accordance with the law and with people's rights. Nobody is immune from prosecution if there is an offense, if individuals are insulted, or if national security is threatened. Alizadeh responded in an open letter on 3 March that all he said is that the head of the judiciary wants to limit press closures as much as possible, IRNA reported. BS

Kurdish politician Mahmud Uthman reportedly told on 3 March that no deal was struck between presidential contender and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan head Jalal Talabani and United Iraqi Alliance prime-ministerial candidate Ibrahim al-Ja'fari in talks earlier this week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 March 2005). Uthman contended that al-Ja'fari could not commit to Shi'ite support of Kurdish demands, including on the status of Kirkuk, adding that the Shi'ite leader would convey those demands to the United Iraqi Alliance in order for the alliance to take a position on the matter. Meanwhile, KurdSat television broadcast on 3 March a press conference the previous day by Talabani and al-Ja'fari in which the latter spoke of the Kurdish demands, saying: "These issues were discussed.... There were no differences between us. There have been dialogues and a series of detailed dialogues that took place during the Governing Council phase, and these dialogues left their marks in the [Transitional Administrative Law]. We will proceed on the basis of that. The law deals with the issue of Kirkuk and all its special aspects and the peshmerga. We have expressed that on many occasions. We will adhere to that, God willing." KR

Interim government spokesman Tha'ir al-Naqib denied on 3 March that Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has withdrawn his candidacy to retain the post in the transitional government, Al-Arabiyah television reported the same day. United Iraqi Alliance member Ahmad Chalabi told Al-Sharqiyah television on 3 March that Allawi had met with alliance member Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim on 3 March and was no longer in the race. "I have learnt that Dr. Allawi informed [al-Hakim] that he does not want to be a candidate for prime minister. It was also reported that [Allawi] would leave Iraq on a vacation soon," Chalabi said. Spokesman al-Naqib told the press on 3 March that the rumors of Allawi's withdrawal from the race were "baseless," Al-Arabiyah reported. KR

Badi Arif Izzat, a lawyer for former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, told London's "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" on 2 March about a meeting between Aziz and investigators examining alleged abuses related to the UN's oil-for-food program, the daily reported on 3 March. Izzat said that Aziz answered most of the investigators' questions, which included queries into whether 20 Arab and foreign persons received illicit oil coupons, including British Member of Parliament George Galloway, Italian Governor Roberto Formigoni, and U.S.-Iraqi businessman Samir Vincent. Aziz reportedly denied Vincent was given coupons, and said he does not know whether Galloway was given any. Izzat did not comment on Formigoni. Aziz was also reportedly asked about alleged bribes paid to former UN weapons inspector Rolf Ekeus, Izzat said. KR

Izzat claimed to "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that Iraqi officials are treating former members of Saddam Hussein's regime poorly. In a meeting with Aziz prior to his questioning by UN investigators, Izzat said the former prime minister appeared to be in very bad health and wearing ragged clothes. Aziz reportedly asked Izzat to convey his greetings to Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani and to personally ask Talabani to advise Kurdish interim Human Rights Minister Bakhtiyar Amin to allow those in custody to meet with their families and to improve the Iraqi authorities' treatment of those detained, claiming that U.S. forces treat the prisoners better than Iraqi officials do. Aziz also appealed for help for detained Iraqi scientist Huda Ammash, the former head of the Iraqi biological-weapons program, who is reportedly suffering from cancer, Izzat said. KR